It was the spring of 1978, I had just finished kindergarten and our family went to Boston to visit my mother’s third cousin, Suzan (later changed to “Susan”), and her family — the only relatives we had in the United States. I was playing with her son, David, when she called out to him.
“David, did you eat your ghorm-e-sabszi?” I was surprised. Why would Suzan, an Iranian like my mom, speak to him in English?
In those days “Persians” (aka Iranians) didn’t come to the United States to immigrate. Most came as tourists, and some (like my parents) came for advanced studies with the intention of going back to live and continue their lives in their country. They always spoke in Farsi with each other.
I asked David, “Do you speak Farsi?” He responded, “No, my mom won’t let me!” At the time I shrugged it off and continued to play. We left Boston and returned to New York. A couple of months later, our family moved back to Iran for what we thought would be forever.
Forever lasted all of three years.
A revolution, war, and social upheaval led us to return to the United States. Only this time we were in California. Still, my parents planned to return to Iran as soon as possible. Suitcases remained closed and they made me study Iranian texts, take Hebrew and Arabic lessons, and enrolled me in Farsi classes in Beverly Hills (a two-hour commute from where we lived).
I would shout at my mom, “Why can’t you be like David’s mom!”
Upon my return to the United States, I had learned quickly that being “I-ranian” was not a good idea. The world had flipped upside down. And, with a name like Aria, and parents speaking a foreign tongue, loudly, in public, it was not long before people asked, “Where are you from?”
When kids in the playground wouldn’t take “New York” as an answer (“Where are you really from?”) things would usually end in a pronunciation joust and often a physical one. Is it “Ee-ran” or “I-ran”? Like Muhammad Ali yelling at Ernie Terrell, “What’s my name?” I would have kids in a choke hold, “It’s Ee-ran! Damn it. Say it right.”
In her award-winning novel, Laughing Without an Accent, Firoozeh Dumas captures the essence of growing up an Iranian in America, “Most immigrants agree that at some point, we become permanent foreigners, belonging neither here nor there.”
After my third year at UCLA, I had an epiphany, which was to drop out of the pre-medical tract, dive into this liminal space, and help myself and others make sense of our permanent foreigner status and perhaps liberate ourselves from it. I began my formal linguistic journey. It was a radical shift, but I tested out of three foreign language requirements (Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish just for fun). It was my mom’s silent, “I told you so!” moment.
In the spring of 1994, some of my friends were taking Introduction to Farsi. The early ‘90s were a time of ethnic revival and taking pride in one’s heritage language and culture, especially at UCLA. My friends began to tell me the story of this white “non-Iranian” doctoral student in biostatistics who was also taking the class.
They playfully laughed at his accent. He couldn’t make glottal sounds. He didn’t know any words. He couldn’t make sentences. He didn’t know even a single word in Farsi. But he was hungry to take the class. I was curious: why would a White American be interested in Farsi? He must be training to be an informant, I joked.
I told my mom about it. She asked me, “What’s his name?” I said, “David.” She said, “What’s his last name?” I wasn’t sure. I asked my friends. It meant nothing to me. When I later told my mom his last name, she said, “That’s your cousin from Boston!” Eighteen years since I had seen him, I was shocked.
David and I reconnected and have been close friends ever since. Today, he has two beautiful daughters. His wife speaks to them in Spanish, and he speaks to them in Farsi. When he calls me, we try to only speak Farsi. Despite all the risks, he has travelled back and forth to Iran numerous times.
When we first reconnected, I asked, “Why?”
He told me a story of his two years teaching in Harlem after graduating from MIT. We talked about how Black people and indigenous people were stripped of their language, culture, and religion. They were cut from the roots and sometimes, “we cut our own roots,” he said.
While many suffered and were erased, some not only survived, but they also thrived. What was the secret? We talked about James Baldwin’s defense of Black English. Baldwin says about the reality of Black language, “an alchemy that transformed ancient elements into a new language… it is a language that came to be by means of brutal necessity in order to bring and sustain a simple truth: if Black language isn’t a language then Black people are not people. They are not human.”
David and I shared Baldwin’s simple truth. We were tired of not being seen as people. We were tired of having to prove our humanity. We were tired of being foreigners in our own skin.
Learning languages, especially the “ancient” ones, was about transforming humanity. First our own, then others, then the universe. It was about resurrecting and unlocking an ancient yet dormant alchemy that is the key to true liberation.
Today, David, his family, and my family, enjoy ghorm-e-sabzi and the best pepian de Indio in the northern/western hemisphere. And, yes, he pronounces both correctly.